To Create Structures and Spaces

Photoshop Art by my student, Brooklyn back in high school.

The new romanticism won’t only be built on workplace incentives. It will be driven, too, by the inherent human craving for the transcendent. Through history there have always been moments when eras of pragmatism give way to eras of high idealism.”

david brooks

Lesson plans can feel like a train that is forever ambling toward us as teachers. A lesson changes, kids are gone, and I am forever re-calibrating tomorrow’s plans, hoping I’ve got things together enough to get the students where I want them to go.

The funny thing is that some of my best teaching moments have come when things went terribly wrong, or when I abandoned the plans in favor of a teachable moment. Years ago I was the yearbook sponsor at Waverly. My staff was made up of all girls, and class periods were filled with mini-lessons and work time to meet our page deadlines for Walsworth Publishing.

One day one of my *co-editors was caught up more than normal. She was like done–and that never happened. I could have given her more work to do on the next deadline, but instead I told her, “You’ve been working hard. Go make something cool.”

In one hour of class time she proceeded to paint her hands, get this above photo of herself, and cut out the color on the area around her hands using Photoshop. It’s a piece of art I still love, and it was created simply because I decided to get out of a student’s way.

Many schools embrace this idea in formalized 20% Time or Genius Hour. And while I love these larger systematic ideas, I think there’s a lot to be said for being open to creating small spaces in a classroom. What does it look like to plan both structures and spaces, to be expectant of some Unplanned Creative Awesomeness coming our way? What does it look like to not only hope for that, but to seek it out, to mine for it like gratitude?

Now, I say all this knowing fully well that some kids can’t do this. And as a new teacher I couldn’t do this. Most days I still can’t. Plans = safety. Some kids will take a chunk of free time and use it to derail the whole class, but some of our students will surprise us in what they can do and what they can teach us if only given a little space.

What would happen if we held our plans a little more loosely, if we all got curious at how these students might surprise us? What if we asked for their ideas and really listened? When I truly ask students with genuine curiosity, yes, they will have joking answers, but with those will be real, concrete ways to make our classroom time better. So often when I over-plan, I choke the life right out of my classes–and out of my life.

The cool thing is that out of the nothing comes something. And often that something turns out to be creativity or learning or relationships or laughter. Yes, an open space can lead to trouble, but sometimes if we listen and trust and (here’s the key) artfully respond as curious teachers, those problematic things simply won’t show up.

Fear and gratitude can’t exist in the same space.

I am thankful that all those years ago I didn’t move Brooklyn on to the next deadline. Today she has her own photography business. I like to think I played some small part in that, but I know that she would have gotten there on her own. Some of my best teaching moves were simply getting out of her way and making a space for her gifts to to show up. Cheers to students who surprise and inspire us. May they find spaces to shine.

Check out Brooklyn’s beautiful work out of Wahoo, Nebraska: Bohac Photography.

*I would be remiss if I didn’t give a shout out to my other co-editor that year, Kelsey Ratkovec. She has her own sweet photography business out of Seward, Nebraska: Kelsey Buss Photography. So proud of both these talented gals.

Gratitude Dare

  • Plan a meal to savor this month.

So I Became a Teacher

My “teacher devotion” book I read a bit of each morning to remind me why I teach.

In November of fifth grade the health van ladies told me I had scoliosis.  “Great. . . lovely,” I thought as I sat in the second-to-back seat in the yellow bus, looking out the window. This meant wearing a back brace. I named it George. George and I were together 24/7.

Up until that point, I remember liking school, some days even loving it. Spelling, grammar, books, flair pens–this stuff has always been my jam. But in fifth grade with a back brace, I sat in the classroom thinking, “I couldn’t care less about this lesson. I’ve got other things on my mind.”

Some of my teachers at this time really saw me and realized I was having a hard time. It’s one thing to feel a square plastic/aluminum contraption tight on your body. It’s another to wear it through junior high when it’s hard to feel comfortable in your own skin, regardless. Some of my teachers weren’t just teaching subjects. They were teaching me. I am so thankful for them.

These teachers got me thinking how teachers really make a difference for their students. What if I became a teacher? The spark of an idea had begun. Then, as a freshman in high school, a friend’s random comment moved me one step closer to teaching. We were cleaning up desks after school, and I was (of course) talking with silly voices to make the chore more interesting–you know, being my weird self. Hearing me goof off, an upperclassmen, Crystal Speckman, said off-handedly, “Have you ever thought about going out for speech?” No, I hadn’t. And she didn’t know how important this suggestion would be to me.

Going to speech competitions was like finding the secret passageway to a room that I didn’t know existed.  Speech meets were a place where it was safe to be my quirky self, to love words and share them with other people. Speech and drama were both like that for me. My two English teachers, Karen Wolken and Judith Ruskamp, were the coaches.

I loved how Mrs. Ruskamp did (and does) everything with excellence. She made me want to be better. When she asked us to run through the show one more time, we groaned, but we also knew she was making us better. I loved how Mrs. Wolken would have fun with her lessons, telling silly stories of her kids. She showed me how teaching could be joyful. Both of them together sparked the idea that I might be an English teacher.

All these years later, some teaching days are especially hard, but remembering WHY I decided to become a teacher in the first place helps. So here’s a morning toast . . . to the teachers deciding to be a teacher again today, to the ones asking kids to run through that play just one more time, to the ones coming up with silly stories to frame their lessons, to the ones really seeing the kid who’s going through all that hard stuff, to the ones saying, “Hey, have you thought of going out for speech?” and to the ones remembering WHY they got into all this in the first place. They really do make a difference.

Gratitude Dare #4

  • Write an anonymous thank you note.

30 Days of Gratitude – Printable Calendar 2019

Photo by Curt Brinkmann. . . one of my favorites.

Here’s your printable 30 days of Gratitude Calendar for 2019. Click the button below to print the 30 days of dares and enjoy Curt’s beautiful photo (above) all month long. If you like his work or need family photos, check out his company web page. I hope you enjoyed that extra hour of sleep and that today inspires thanks.

Cheers! – #gratitudeparty 2019

Up early before school – check. Too much candy in my house right now – check.
Candle & writing prayer – check. Tea – check. Keyboard out. . . Here we go.

You know at a wedding when the maid of honor clinks her glass to get your attention. It’s that moment before she says something that matters to her, something shiny. It’s the same moment where maybe the best man is going. . . oh crap, I gotta think of something to say.

I kid. I kid. And I HAVE heard some bang-up best man speeches. I joke because I feel both of these this morning–excited to be writing, and not entirely sure what to write. But, I’m thankful I’m here today, even thankful I procrastinated to check my e-mail and find words from one of my favorites.

“You either start now, or it is not going to happen for you, and you are going to wake up at seventy years old (or eighty, if you are already seventy) filled with sorrow that you let your dream, your passion, gift, fall by the wayside. You start now, as is.

Anne Lamont, A pep talk for NANOWRIMO,

So I’m here–as is–not promising sparkly, but looking for it. Maybe I should just start with what this all about.

Gratitude Party started in 2014. I wanted to turn up the still small voice of gratitude in my life and bring fun folks along for the ride. Five years later, I’m thankful for this routine writing season, how it grounds me, and how it connects people. I just checked my mail list numbers for the first time in awhile, and the audience I thought was 200 is over 550. So, you’re not the only one who feels like she (or he) could use a little gratitude.

So, if you’ve been along for the ride since 2014, hello again. And if you’re a gratitude party newbie, here’s the gist. . . Gratitude party is not one more thing to do. It’s a lens to look through at the things you’re already doing in the month leading up to Thanksgiving, a way of daring to see them differently.

Each day I’ll share a short post. I’m a teacher/librarian so it’ll have a homework “Gratitude Dare” to get our gratitude muscles going. Here’s our first one:

Day 1 Gratitude Dare

  • Get a dedicated notebook, or start a list on your phone or computer. This works best if it is easy to get to throughout the day. When gratitude strikes, jot it down. Name it. Notice it. The goal is to search-out gratitude, mine for it, even when you’re not feeling it, and then sit back at some point during this month, marveling at how It might just be searching for us too.
  • Write 3 gratitudes each day. This is the goal, but there are no grades, so skip a day, double up a day, it’s all gravy. In the end, we’ll all look back with gratitude for the real gravy (yum) and with thanks for the way this “lens” hasn’t changed our experiences, but how it’s changed us.

Click here to subscribe for daily #gratitudeparty in your in-box. Also–if you know somebody who could use some gratitude, especially a teacher, pass this e-mail along. If you have questions or want to share your gratitudes, hit me up at eviwusk.comFacebookInstagram, or Twitter. Thanks. I’m so glad you’re here.

One of these is Gratitude. . . Another is Teaching.

Photo by Curt Brinkmann

“Before I can tell my life what I want to do with it, I must listen to my life telling me who I am.” 

Parker Palmer, my favorite writer on teaching

I heard someone say once that if we lean really hard into our deep-seated beliefs, they often give way.  While that has been true for some things, others don’t shift, no matter how hard I lean and kick and punch.

One of these is gratitude. . . another is teaching.

I circle back to both again and again, like they are somehow part of my DNA.

I am not saying I am naturally thankful–actually the opposite. So I write here, trying to turn back toward the Good. Some days teaching is about finding ways to be thankful for the lesson plans that go wrong–so they can go right the next time.

I am thankful for phone conversations with my sister after school that do this.  These talks have more than once helped me zoom up and out to find the courage and the next steps needed for tomorrow.

I am thankful for Ralph, the best one.  “If you like to write, just write,” might have been the kindest and most helpful thing anyone’s ever said to me.  I love writing, and I might just love the teaching of writing even more. To hear a student read their words with a confident tone for the first time, to watch them learn to wield their own voice–that’s the stuff that reminds me that teaching is a gift. . . even on hard days.

I am thankful for the Nebraska Writing Project and Robert daring me to say, “I am a writer.”  There have been few deeper graces for me–I love daring students to say it too.

I believe that gratitude is powerful. So is teaching. Both get at the stuff that shimmers, somehow holy, peeking through the dingy and the hard.  I learned gratitude first from my parents, Jim and Holly.  I’m thankful for them.

Sometimes though, I don’t feel thankful for teaching, but in the long haul, the thanks always come. Maybe that’s why this is the time of year where I gear up to share out writing and gratitude dares leading up to Thanksgiving. This year our gratitude party is dedicated to teaching and to teachers.  These upcoming pieces are precious to me, so much so that they’ve been in the notebook for longer than usual. The starts of these pieces are all three years old or more.  Something about the classroom calls forth a deeper care in me–as I aim to steward the stories of these growing people and their lives as they intersect with mine.

At a teacher training once I saw a graphic that showed how teacher morale is at its lowest in October, with holiday break far away, and the zest that comes with new back packs and fresh pens fizzling out. So if you know anyone who could use some gratitude–especially a teacher–would you share this link below? My teacher gratitude party this November will be one of re-igniting agency and hope. We cannot Polly-Anna this hard-hard work of teaching, but we can learn to mine for gratitudes with every. single. student.

Thanks all for reading. If you’re not a teacher, don’t worry, in so many ways you might just be. 😉  Cheers–as always–to beefing up our gratitude muscles.

Evi (say it like Chevy), Kicking off Gratitude Party 2019

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Boundary Waters 2019 – So What? (Part Six)

Life shrinks or expands in proportion to one’s courage.

anais nin

One of my favorite teaching questions is, “So what?” At the end of this lesson, at the end of this project, at the end of this Boundary Waters trip. . . what is the big take away? What does this mean for living? Why even write about it?

For me, the So What lies in little daily moments of courage. It’s not all about thrill-seeking or cliff jumping (which actually can cause you to break your tailbone according to my hairdresser). It’s about small acts of courage done day in and day out.

What is the thing in my life today that is asking me to be just a little bit bolder, to step out with just a little more courage? Is it a phone call that needs dialing? A card that needs sending? A meeting that needs scheduled? A long-overdue conversation that can start with just a sentence pushed from my mouth? What might it look like to take one tiny step toward the thing that needs doing, taking the courage that’s being handed to us, if we dare to look for it in unexpected ways?

Daily courage doesn’t need to be dramatic. Just the other day I took my kids to the Lincoln Zoo. I didn’t realize the new addition included a water feature. “Can we play in it mama?” they said while pulling my arms toward the water. My worried brain started in its normal circles. . . “Maybe just get your feet wet.” “We can’t spend all day here we won’t get to all the zoo.” “We should have brought our swim suits. . . “

Instead of going down those normal patterns, for some reason–maybe this trip–I had a little more courage to lean over, look them in the eye and say, “Go for it.”

No one melted. No one cared that Oliver had on see-through-when-wet yellow cotton shorts. And no car seats were harmed by being a little wet. Instead, I got a chance to sit back and watch these beautiful little humans living life, to watch them splash and play and run. I am grateful for Boundary Waters 2019. For the time away that reminds me and wakes me up to the time we have together, for my own boundaries stretched, my sense of what’s possible still growing. Amen.

Courage is Collective (Part Five)

“Maybe that’s what religion is, hurling yourself off a cliff and trusting that something bigger will take care of you and carry you to the right place.” 
― Maria Semple, Where’d You Go, Bernadette

Shortly after I flung myself off the rope swing, we were paddling along and one of my friends cheered, “There’s the cliffs!”

Cliff jumping?

Great. Seriously God? Did you forget that I already did my brave thing today?

Why? Why a cliff?

As we paddled up to the rock side, my one friend and then the other two climbed up and leaped out into the beautiful deep pool. It wasn’t outrageously high, but yet again I found myself mired in my own fear. When is fear keeping me safe. . . and when is it holding me back? I inched my way up onto the cliff, like some elementary school kid mustering her courage to go off the diving board for the first time.

I peered out into the water–felt some vertigo–and moved back. Oh crap that’s high. Seriously? Why can’t we just go to Holiday Inn for our vacations as my friend Jo suggests?. . . I moved back and forth analyzing, thinking, thinking, overthinking. My friend even got a picture of me standing in the bushes, staring at the ground pondering all the multiple ways I might die from this–and how my friends would have to lug my body out of the wilderness along with their canoes and gear. This picture maybe most accurately depicts how adventuresome I actually am.

“You can do it Evi!” one of my friends hollered from down in the water. I looked out at my friends, treading water with their life vests on in the beautiful Woohoo After. This wasn’t about my fear. This was about being together, about challenging ourselves and supporting each other in what we can do and what we can’t. And from their cheers and that space of grace the courage came–being handed to me in the most beautiful and strange ways again and again. Just two seconds is all you really need to get off the cliff.

When I hit the water, my feet whooshed down like a rocket. Deeper than the rope swing, I had to push myself up and up to the surface to join my friends, once again the Woohoo After, this time bigger, better. . . together.

Funny thing is, it’s not up to us to do all of this on our own. What, after all, would be the fun in that? What if real courage is collective, what if we’re missing the best part when we try to go at it all alone?

Read along to Part Six.

Read along to part six.

Just Jump (Part four)

Taken with my Grandma Nancy’s refurbished film camera. Summer Boundary Waters Trip 2019.

When we brought our canoes up to the camp site, my friend yelled, “Oh sweet! There’s a rope swing!”

A rope swing?

There it was, a swing tied to a tree growing up out of the rocks just near the edge. You could see down through the clear water and tell that many before had used this rope to fling themselves out into the deep water.

Oh great.

We didn’t even set up camp before my friend put on her swim suit and athletically flung herself out into the water, gracefully releasing the hold she had on the wooden log under her arms.

So I proceeded to worry myself sick the entire evening. My journal from that night is filled with a million creative ways why this a horribly irresponsible and bad idea. Through all this angst I finally came to a place in my journal where I sensed God telling me–“So just don’t do it, Evi.”

Huh. Just don’t do it.

Don’t do it? As a German Lutheran I don’t know if I missed that lesson in school–that you can say no to good things, that saying no is actually an option.

And in this thought I felt the stress and worry and fear melt from my shoulders. I was so relieved that I had the most restful night of sleep I’ve ever had camping. I woke to birds chirping–with an idea. I slipped into my swimsuit, zipped up my life vest, handed my camera to my friend and pulled back on the log with my hands instead of trying to hold it under my arms.

I ran and flung myself out into the waiting water: a morning polar bear plunge.

It is simply science or math that after something like that you come up out of the water with a huge, “Woohoo!!”

And there I was. . . in the Woohoo After. . . no longer worrying, no longer analyzing, no longer thinking. Just gliding along.

There’s a grace in realizing that we don’t have to jump, and sometimes that we can–if we do it our own way. May we all look back in the Woohoo After this year, smiling at the things we’ve done that we were sure we just couldn’t do. Amen.

Read on to Part Five.

Read on to Part Five.

In Search of Beauty Laid Bare (Part Three)

The fullness of Joy is to behold God in everything.

Julian of Norwich

Our Boundary Waters canoe trip this summer challenged me, scared me, and taught me things about myself. . . but most importantly it reminded me–once again–to just look around and notice.

I went on this trip hoping to see beauty laid bare, to be inspired by nature and to re-connect with some dear friends. All of these things happened. My gratitude list on this trip is long:

  • Lily pads
  • Dragonflies
  • Little frogs
  • Giggling until my sides hurt
  • The feel of steering with a partner
  • Setting up camp as a cooperative group
  • Campfire food
  • The feel of tennis shoes after wearing wet Chacos all day.

In the wilderness it’s easy to look around and have gratitude with so many distractions pulled back. The benefits of forest bathing are real, and something magical always catches me and brings me home no matter how far off course I’ve gotten.

The challenge of these trips is to take these Third Day Lyrics to heart, “When I climb down the mountain, and get back to my life, I won’t settle for ordinary things. . .”

So once again I want to look around at my own work-a-day life with a new set of eyes. There is NEW every day. What if we dare to notice the things, to make the gratitude list that re-orients our gaze, to get in the rhythm of looking for good and not just the bad? Again and again I see beauty laid bare not only on epic trips, but in the most ordinary of places. What if all of this isn’t so ordinary after all?

Read on to Part Four.

The Balance Comes in Moving Forward (Part Two)

A portage, I learned on our Minnesota Boundary Waters Canoe trip, is hiking with your canoe and gear between lakes. I was nervous about this part as I wasn’t sure how to carry a canoe–or if I even could. On my first portage I panicked, feeling bugs swarm my face that I couldn’t swat as I exhausted my forearms muscling the canoe nose up only to have it too far up so that I had to muscle it down.

The key, I learned after a few portages–is to keep moving forward, maybe even a bit faster than feels comfortable. You need to ride the canoe’s energy, somehow be one with it–instead of trying to muscle against it.

It’s funny how portaging–a thing that scared me so much–turned into the thing that gave me the greatest sense of pride at the end of this trip. Perhaps the things that are hardest are the things really worth doing. Trust the time. Trust the wait. One step, one day at a time.

Read on to Part Three.